You can skip Chapter 11 without losing the plot.
The bandit squirmed, his hand ending up near his waist. Sefton caught the man’s hand before he could grab hold of whatever weapon he had hidden in his belt-pouch.
“Remember the tender sensibilities of our egglings,” Sefton chided with false calm. “You don’t want to see what happens if you draw steel in front of one of our sons.”
He was a little surprised at himself, to be saying our sons, but it was a truth enough for this.
The bandit paled. “You’re not really going to…”
“Why do we wear chains?” Jaco asked. It was a bit amusing, coming from someone not wearing any. But the question was still there. “Husbands. Why are we chained?”
Hothyan laughed. “That’s eggling stuff. Everyone knows that.”
“This one doesn’t seem to.” Jaco prodded the bandit with his hook. “And he’s wearing ’em, which makes me wonder a number of things.’
“They mean… they mean you’ve submitted to your wife. GIven in, surrendered.” The bandit’s voice was turning into a whine.
“Now that’s an interesting interpretation. Hothyan, have you ever heard that?”
“No, sir. I mean, once from one of those strangers, the ones with the robes. But everyone knows they’re crazy.”
“Everyone does,” Jaco agreed ominously. “But ‘submitted,’ that part’s right.”
Sefton leaned against the door frame, his blade pinning down the bandit’s wrist. “Knelt and everything,” he agreed. “She’s in charge. Her, and then Onter, and then Calum. We have a proper chain of command.”
“Chain of… that sounds military.” The bandit was bleeding lightly from several of his wounds. That was going to be a bear to clean up.
Sefton grinned, showing all his teeth. He could see Jaco and Hothyan doing the same. “It does sound military, doesn’t it?”
“I wonder why that is?” Jaco asked thoughtfully. “Why the families here have such a millitary sounding structure?”
“You’re supposed to be weaklings,” the bandit complained. “You’re supposed to be afraid. All locked up and frail, like women.”
“Like women?” Hothyan scoffed. “What kind of women do you know, that are frail?”
Sefton had fallen silent. He glanced over at Jaco. Jaco seemed to have reached the same conclusion.
“You’re from the Table-Lands, across the water.” Jaco’s voice was hoarse. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Bandits aren’t supposed to be here, either,” Hothyan pointed out. “They’re intruders, dangerous. They take girls.”
The bandit leered. “And boys. And weakling husbands. We’ll take everyone we can gra-ah!” He fell silent as Jaco’s hook poked further into him.
“You’ve come a long way to be a bandit. Bandits,” Jaco explained to Hothyan, “are usually people like us, egg-people from our lands. They might trade with other nations, with pirate and slavers, but they’re often born in a nursery just like you were.”
“No bandit was born anyplace this posh,” the bandit sneered. “Nor would they call themselves ‘bandits.’ That’s just the stupid house-proud name for them.”
“‘Them?’” Jaco poked the man again. “If they’re ‘them’ then what are you?”
The bandit shut his mouth, finally deciding to be quiet.
Jaco sighed. “Oh, you’re going to be difficult. And I was hoping you’d keep spewing out information. Well, let’s see. Hothyan, what blades do you have with you?”
“I’ve got my long-knife and the short nasty-looking black dagger,” Hothyan volunteered. He looked a little pale and a little eager all at once.
Sefton didn’t blame him. This was the first time Sefton had actually encountered a bandit – or someone working with the bandits, or pretending to be a bandit, or whatever this guy actually was – in the living flesh. He’d seen a few dead ones, after they’d attempted to attack his mother’s house, but never one kicking and bleeding and, it seemed, telling lies about the husbands-of-wives who lived here.
Jaco, however, was talking as if torturing bandits was an everyday affair for him. Sefton wondered how much of this was bluster and how much was just fact and experience.
“All right, so. Take the long-knife, and roll him over, like this.” Jaco rolled the bandit over with a foot. “You want to start with the shoulders, here. Or the fingers, but that takes a different tool.”
Out of the corner of Sefton’s eye, he could see the other children sneaking closer. He gestured them backwards with a surreptitious hand-wave.
“Right, right.” The bandit’s voice was a little muffled; he lifted his head up enough to talk. “I, we, we’re from the Desthian settlement. It’s on the other side of the Deep Bay, what you call the Rudder Sea here. It’s a small place, and we never see people from here there. We weren’t sure if you even knew about it. But we’re having some troubles with our land, and so we snuck into a few bandit groups to see if it were common.”
“Why didn’t you just send an ambassador to talk to our consulate?”
“Because your consulates are not interested in the Desthian. They’re interested in the Thaoushie, who happen to currently be claiming all of the Desthian territory, and who also have better trade goods. Us, normal Desthians, they don’t care one bit about.”
“So, what, you attack our homes?” Sefton glared at the man’s back.
“So we embedded ourselves into bandit groups because then we could see what was going on here with every-day people, people who weren’t part of the consulate or the government.”
“And attacked our homes,” Sefton finished for him. “Lovely.”
“It’s a pretty story,” Jaco cut in. “But how did you get into the nursery?”
“I can’t… ow. Okay, okay. Phorino, the one who ran off. He worked with the people who made the vault doors. They all have different combinations, but they all have the same fail-safes. In case a wife needs to get in, if her husbands rebel or, I don’t know, lock themselves in by accident.”
Jaco pushed air out between his lips in a long plosive sigh. “You… no. Seriously? There is no way that you’re telling the truth. It just…”
“It’s awful,” Sefton agreed. “Would they really make a, what, a key? It’s not as if she doesn’t have the combination.”
“Hey, look. I’m telling the truth. Phorino took it with him, but I can show you where in the door it went.” The bandit — the person pretending to be a bandit, Sefton supposed — tried to get to his feet, only to be stopped once again by Jaco’s hook. “I’m telling the truth, I swear!”
“We can take this from here.” Lady Taisiya’s voice was like a splash of cold water. Sefton moved, half-unconsciously, to block her view of Jaco as she came around the corner. “Very well done, Feltian, Jaco, Hothyan. Now get back in the nursery, that’s good boys, and I’ll talk with our bandit here.”
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